Reports that John Bolton has written a firsthand account of the president’s direct involvement in withholding aid to Ukraine has left some Republicans confused and angry over the legal strategy by the president’s defense team — which has devoted much of its arguments in the Senate impeachment trial to arguing that no such firsthand evidence existed.
One Republican operative who advises the White House said he was “flabbergasted at how stupidly they have handled this.”
Trump attorney Mike Purpura argued Saturday that “not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything else.”
Purpura repeated that claim on Monday afternoon, saying that “anyone who spoke to the president” said there was no pressure campaign on Ukraine.
That assertion echoes what the president’s legal team argued in its legal brief filed a week ago: “House Democrats’ claims are built entirely on speculation from witnesses who had no direct knowledge about anything and who never even spoke to the President about this matter.”
The disclosure in the New York Times Sunday night directly contradicts the arguments of the president’s lawyers, who said in their brief that this is “the central fact in this case.” Bolton, Trump’s former security adviser, has written in his forthcoming memoir about having just such a conversation with the president last August.
“This just completely washes away Purpura’s whole argument,” the White House adviser said. “WTF. He misled the Senate.”
The first of two articles of impeachment in the Senate trial accuses Trump of withholding military aid to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation that could discredit former Vice President Joe Biden.
The House impeachment inquiry heard from numerous witnesses who testified that such a pressure campaign was undertaken by the administration, but none of them had direct evidence that implicated Trump personally.
Bolton claims to have that firsthand knowledge, according to reports about his manuscript.
The Republican who advises the White House predicted there now may be no way for the White House to prevent Bolton from testifying. The adviser said the cardinal sin by the president's lawyers was not finding out what was in Bolton's book and addressing it in their opening remarks on Saturday.
It is not known who at the White House had access to the document, but at least one former top executive branch attorney, Jack Goldsmith, said a presidential administration “often circulates manuscripts submitted for [prepublication] review widely, including to political officials, and it often asks for deletions for reasons having nothing to do [with] disclosure of classified info.”
Another Republican operative who speaks regularly with the White House said the upshot of Bolton’s revelations will be to increase momentum toward calls for him to testify.
“I think it pushes at least four GOP senators to vote to call witnesses. They were soft before this little bombshell,” the Republican operative said.
There are 47 Democrats in the Senate. Together with at least four Republicans, they would make up a majority.
On the question of why the president’s lawyers relied so heavily on the absence of a firsthand account tying the president to the pressure on Ukraine, this operative said: “They all represent a serial liar. [You] never know what is really going on. This is how he ran his businesses.”
And indeed, the immediate reaction on Capitol Hill did seem to suggest that the Senate was moving toward the idea of calling at least Bolton to testify. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was “increasingly likely” that at least four Republicans would vote to call Bolton to appear before the Senate.
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